San Francisco Opera Chorus 2021-22 Review: Farewell Concert for Ian Robertson

A Wondrous “Ave” and “Atque Vale” to a Treasured Master

By Lois Silverstein

It was an intimate setting for a chorus, the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco. Rows of benches slanted on either side of the polished grand piano that stood like wings. Thirty-five chorus members all dressed in black, took their places in a formal procession. Ian Robertson, San Francisco Chorus Master, and Fabrizio Corona, Associate Chorus Master, followed.

While immediate and personal, it was anything but informal. The entire performance was commanding in its polished performance. It was festive and bittersweet as the chorus said goodbye to Ian Robertson after his 35-year tenure. This concert was full of wonders.

The concert encompassed 300 years of music, from excerpts of Charpentier’s “Te Deum” and Bach’s “Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe” from Cantata BWV 147, to Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” from “Candide.” It included selections in Latin, French, German, Spanish, English; opera from Händel and Mozart to Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini; poetry; folk songs, and so much more. The moods ranged from reverent to a bit salty, melancholic to joyful, each piece its own island of beauty and commentary, the texts each projected onto a large wall that worked smoothly and effectively. Who could ask for more?

A Vibrant Leader

Ian Robertson conducted and narrated, his attunement to the audience, the content and style of the music, and the chorus members and accompanist, Fabrizio Contorno, created a performance narrative that remained interesting as well as aesthetic. No wonder the San Francisco Opera Chorus has performed so masterfully in the years of Ian Robertson’s tenure. It was the perfect marriage of leadership, music, and performance.

The soloists and the chorus members worked in perfect harmony. Clare Demer, Sara Colburn, Whitney Steele, Andrew Truett, Mitchell Jones offered a rich and beautiful start to the concert with the “Te Deum.” Thomas and Demer rendered opera selections from “Idomeneo” and “L’Elisir d’Amore,” with exceptional finesse. Michael Jankosky delivered a touching Edgardo from “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The chorus complemented these with a poignant performance of the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which was sung in particular commemoration of the many losses to the pandemic.

Colorful portraits of “Noi siamo zingarelle” and “Di Madride noi siamo mattadori” from Verdi’s “La Traviata” followed. To single these out, as Robertson and Contorno did, was to highlight only some of the varied textures a great opera such as “La Traviata” contains. They remind us it is hardly just the centerpieces that comprise its splendor. The well-known Chorus “Va, Pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco” brought the first half to its end.

Spotlighting Women Composers

The second half was splendid in its choice of repertoire, featuring, in particular, a number of women composers. While choruses from Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” kicked things off, the moving, chorus of “Dead Soldiers” from Jennifer Higdon,“ Cold Mountain,” set the tone with haunting lyrics on Civil War dead with a men’s chorus. In addition to Jennifer Higdon, we heard work by Joan Szymko, Gabriela Lena Frank, Kate Rusby, and Cava Menzies, whose “Invitation to Love,” set to a marvelous poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, was given its world premiere. Menzies, who was in attendance, stood up to take a bow. The music was rich and original, the lyrics moving and compelling. The future was there, unfolding, and given its proper due.

Among the soloists we also heard Kathleen Bayler, soprano, and Phillip Pickens, tenor, in a picante duet, “Bailèro” from  Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne”; and Angela Moser, Silvie Jensen, Alan Cochran, Mitchell Jones, performing Ravel’s delightful “Trois Chansons”. Joan Szymko’s “All Works of Love” with lyrics by Mother Teresa followed, inspiring the reflective strand of the concert, woven throughout.

Marvelous contrast came on its heels with Michael Belle singing “We’re goin’ round’” from “Treemonisha” by Scott Joplin, which left us wanting to hear more. The Peruvian Andes’ “Mountain Songs” came after and were sung only by the women. They were complex in their rhythms and stunningly rendered. Elizabeth Baker, mezzo-soprano, did more than justice to “Underneath the Stars” composed by Kate Rusby and arranged by Jim Clements.

Before the Finale from “Candide,” Matthew Shilvock, San Francisco Opera’s General Director, gave a formal “Ave” and “Atque Vale (Hail and Farewell),” to Robertson. It was graceful and gracious, enumerating the 2,000 performances and over 375 productions that Robertson mastered. Shilvock also commended Robertson for creating a family of singers, with each having a passion for excellence. Even the happy audience felt the authenticity.

“Make our Garden Grow,” a lyrical rendition by well-known American poet, Richard Wilbur, of Voltaire’s famous, “Il faut que nous cultivar notre jardin” was the “pièce de résistance.” Jesslynn Thomas, Chester Pidduck, Claire Kelm, William O’Neill, and Wilford Kelly, gave us a wondrous send-off. This is a good reminder for today – in the world in which we strive for interconnection we sometimes overstep boundaries.

We left the theater enriched by this array of talent and imagination and were filled with gratitude that Ian Robertson and the San Francisco Chorus shared, as they have for so many season. Hats off to the conductor, accompanist, and every performer of the group.


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